Thorn Letter: The Forgotten Old-English Letter

By Carly Forsaith, updated on March 22, 2023

Have you ever heard of the thorn letter? It was a legitimate letter of the alphabet that no longer exists. So what happened to it? Let’s find out.

In short:

  • The letter thorn makes the sound ‘th’. Although it is no longer a letter of the alphabet, it’s a recognized digraph in the English language.

What is the Letter Thorn, and How do You Pronounce It?

The letter thorn was a letter in the Old English alphabet until around the sixth century.

It looked like this:


The letter produces the sound ‘th,’ which is a voiceless sound made with the tongue.

Nowadays, it is no longer recognized as a single letter, but it is a digraph (a combination of two letters to make one sound) and is an essential part of learning to read.

The International Phonetics Alphabet uses the following phoneme to represent it:


Where Did It Go?

The story went when printing presses were being imported, using the letter thorn became an issue because the letter wasn’t available in the fonts that were imported from Germany and Italy.

It was decided that the letter that most resembled it was the letter ‘y’, so people would just write ‘y’ instead of thorn. If you ask me, it looks more like a ‘P,’ but that’s just me.

Anyways. The problem was that this meant ‘y’ was getting used for two purposes: the letter thorn and the letter ‘y.’ That was confusing. So, in the end, they just got rid of the letter thorn, and that was that.

Thorn’s Legacy

Although the letter thorn is no longer an official part of the alphabet, it’s left a legacy behind. Think about it: have you ever come across an old British-style pub called “Ye Olde Inn” or something of the like? The words ‘ye olde’ are reminiscent of the medieval period in England and are still used to this day, albeit in a more kitsch way.

And how would you say this phrase out loud? If you’re pronouncing the ‘y’ the way it’s pronounced today, like in the word ‘yes,’ you’re pronouncing it wrong.

It’s actually our good old thorn letter showing us as a ‘y’!

So next time you hear someone pronounce it incorrectly, you can choose to pronounce it the right way and give them a short history lesson!

Concluding Thoughts on Thorn

So now you know the thorn is a forgotten letter that used to be a legitimate part of the English alphabet. And it wasn’t the only one! But that’s a story for another article.

Let’s summarize what we’ve learned:

  • Thorn used to be a letter in the English alphabet.
  • It makes the sound ‘th’.
  • Imported printing presses didn’t include the letter thorn, so people used ‘y’ instead.
  • Eventually, the letter was dropped altogether.
  • Nowadays, the sound ‘th’ is recognized as a digraph.

If you found this article helpful, check out our blog, where we cover lots of different topics related to English grammar and grammar rules.

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Written By:
Carly Forsaith
Carly Forsaith is one of the lead freelance writers for Carly is a copywriter who has been writing about the English language for over 3 years. Before that, she was a teacher in Thailand, helping people learn English as a second language. She is a total grammar nerd and spends her time spotting language errors on signs and on the internet.

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